A sense of claustrophobia overwhelms this episode: Mike Colter’s face and hair filling the frame that explodes into screams, glistening blood on his knuckles. The claustrophobia makes sense for an episode that switches between Luke and Connie trapped under the rubble and Luke’s time at Seagate Prison. The cells at Seagate seem small even for a prison and outside its walls is an expanse of water whose crossing no escapee has ever survived. In this episode, the origin of Luke’s powers becomes clear but they are reflective of a painful history that exists outside of the comic book world.
The immoral prison filled with immoral people is a staple of blaxploitation. Being sent to a prison (often in the South) after being set up by a rival or the man and then being exploited is a common theme in blaxploitation. Black men and women being exploited in jail is also a common theme in our history, either for labor or use as test subjects in medical experiments. We don’t linger on Luke and Connie pinned under the rubble for long because Luke Cage is going to explore the horrors of the prison-industrial complex and they’ve got less than sixty minutes to do it.
Luke Cage presents us with a prison system that’s full of corrupt individuals, rather than acknowledging that the institution of the American prison is riddled with racism. At Seagate, prisoners disappear without explanation. A crooked prison guard, Albert Rackham, lays out his own set of rules for the prisoners and immediately dishes out violence. Reva admits that Seagate is privately owned and the inmates press her to admit that offering your body as a test subject can reduce your sentence. There is a secret fighting ring broadcast over the internet to line Rackham’s pockets. It’s never addressed but there’s also an uncomfortable power dynamic present in Reva and Luke’s relationship. She’s his therapist and an employee at Seagate. You’d think after Orange Is The New Black, a little more sensitivity to inmates’ personal relationships would permeate Neflix’s other offerings.
I found that the emphasis on individuals rather than the system left me wanting. For a show that explores blackness so deftly, the impact of race in the prison-industrial complex was left unsaid. Medical experimentations on prisoners are not the stuff of fiction. Some experiments exposed inmates to skin creams, cancer treatments, and high doses of drugs like LSD. These experiments have left countless prisoners scarred or spread diseases to an incredibly vulnerable population. Because the prison population in America is overwhelmingly African-American, these experiments are being carried out on black people disproportionally, often without informed consent or for minimal compensation. While the imagery of Luke’s impossibly small cell and his fists breaking through the prison walls was powerful, Colter’s strong-silent type performance, Luke’s stoic characterization, and the lack of context—who is doing this to the prisoners? How long has this been going on? Who was that shadowy man watching the fights in the prison?—add up to a shallow exploration of prison and the havoc it actually wreaks.
During his first night in Seagate, he tells himself that he didn’t do it and repeats “Just remember who you are and you’ll get through this, Carl Lucas. I am Carl Lucas.” Because we’ve been getting to know this man as Luke Cage, Rackham’s mantra that “how you start is how you end in places like this” is proven false as the episode runs its course. However, his other mantra “no one does it alone” holds true.
In this adaptation of Luke Cage, Reva runs Seagate’s group therapy where she advocates for building relationships in order to survive while incarcerated. This allows for the audience to see Luke’s relationship tendencies are not new aspects of his life. Luke denies he will need anyone or anything beyond himself. He tends to find an older mentor to bicker with about their pop culture favorites and he finds a woman who tries to understand him and he bristles at her interest. Both of these figures preach self-care to Luke during his time in prison. His mentor in prison is Squabbles who reminds him that “Strength has its limits.” Luke is also resistant to Reva’s interest in him and dismisses her until she is vulnerable and honest with him. He pushes her guilt associated with being at grad school at the time of his death. Their relationship grows as Luke helps her rearrange the group room, demonstrating that Luke is most open when he is in service to others.
Squabbles helps Luke realize that his humanity is being stripped away and when Rackham threatens Reva, Luke decides to gather enough evidence to take the whole operation down. Luke has no interest in physically destroying the systems that oppress him and others. He wants to dismantle where its power comes from. For Rackham, it’s the fighting ring’s secrecy. Luke also goes to the prison barbershop after deciding to expose Rackham. In Luke Cage, the barbershop is a location for self-discipline and pride. After letting his hair and beard grow wild and allowing himself to hit rock bottom, Luke reclaims control by getting lined up.
There are parallels to Captain America undergoing experiments to become a super soldier. Iron Man gained his strength by being saved by a scientist when he was near death and building a suit so he can carry out good in the world. Although Luke being submerged in the bath and crawling out reminds the audience of Captain America falling out of the injection chamber stronger, Luke Cage didn’t choose this. Luke calls the fighting ring “slavery” earlier in the episode. He gained his powers because a prison guard wanted to punish him, hoping to kill him for wanting to leave a system where Luke was being exploited. Rackham wanted to enact violence on Luke one more time. He wanted to commit an extra-legal execution but it backfired.
When Luke emerges from “the bath,” the only pieces from the machine that remain on his body are the silver cuffs and headpiece used to strap him down. He punches a wall and realizes that he can break out of the prison using only his fists. He smashes a hole in the wall and exclaims “Sweet Christmas!” He pulls a Hulk and steals a yellow jacket and blue pants from a clothesline outside Seagate. Y’all. It’s like Luke Cage is cosplaying as Luke Cage. He says he looks like a fool.
Reva meets him at a motel where he’s getting used to his new strength. I liked the touch in this scene that she brought him a black hoodie. Reva tells him that he’s going to need a new name as a fugitive. Another moment of reinvention, another new name is chosen. Luke remembers his father’s favorite Bible passage and how he used to tell him “No one can cage a man if he truly wants to be free.” When the episode arrives back in the present after Luke has climbed out of the rubble of Genghis Connie’s, he proudly tells newscasters his name.